The Generalizations of Directing: James Lee

Do you have a thing for films that make you think outside the box? Then you’ve probably heard of James Lee, veteran Film Director and Founder of Doghouse 73. We spoke to James about his notable past in feature films, his active present in short films, and what it means to be a Film Director.

When did you get into filmmaking?

In 1993 or 1994, I joined a local TV production since that industry was booming. Prior to that, there was virtually nothing but Malay movies and a couple of Malay dramas. I actually come from a background of theatre, and I took a lot of courses at The Actor’s Studio. So my acting and directing skills come from my past of theatre.Now there are more feature films out- Chinese films, Tamil films, Malay films and such. Back then (before 1993), it was smaller, not an industry where you could get jobs easily.

You also act in quite a number of your productions. Did you have a trained background in acting?

I didn’t get to delve much into acting, in theatre or TV production, because I was learning all the different aspects in production. I was originally trained as a graphic designer. Back then, there was no film school, no multimedia courses. So I thought the best way to learn was to get into every department: acting, PA… I worked as a technical crewman as well, a gaffer, editor, and eventually I became a DP (Director of Photography).

It was a learning process- I went into acting on TV and eventually in theatre too. That’s how I learnt what it was like to be an actor, both when you’re onstage, as well as when you’re in front of the camera and you’ve got to imagine your own fictional world. Acting is very complex; it’s not just about memorizing the lines and remembering them. Once you understand acting in theatre, you appreciate that the whole craft was not as simple as you thought.

Why do you make films, and how did you get into it?

Basically, it’s telling a story. Before I went into film, the reason I did graphic design was because I wanted to become a comic artist. I used to be a Marvel and DC fan when I was young, and I liked graphic novels, so that was my main ambition. But the comic industry is worse in Malaysia- nobody buys local comics anymore. I thought filmmaking was interesting because I didn’t understand it back then.We had no YouTube and no idea how film worked. When I went into graphic design, a component they taught me was “Storyboarding”, and I thought, “wow, it looks like comic panels”, and that was an eye-opener. Once I understood that process, it got me interested in the other processes, like how they write a script, and how they shoot the film. I started watching films and thinking about how they were shot instead of just enjoying them.Eventually I thought, “I’d love a chance to make a short film”. Back then, chances were slim and film was very expensive, so I ended up in theatre. Then I got a chance to move to TV production when it boomed- but the boom didn’t last for long. It fell apart in 1997 because of our recession, and the whole industry went down. It slowly crept back up during the 2000s.

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